The late R&B star's label Blackground Records has struck a new deal that will also re-release albums from artists like JoJo and Toni Braxton.
Aaliyah's music is finally hitting streaming services following a deal with her label and Empire
| Credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Aaliyah's music is finally coming to streaming services. Nearly 20 years after her tragic death, the pop-R&B icon's last two albums, along with compilations I Care 4 U and Ultimate Aaliyah, will be available to fans as part of a package deal struck between her label Blackground Records and Empire.

The news came Thursday alongside an announcement that Blackground and Empire — a company that has its hands in distributing and publishing in addition to operating as an independent label — have partnered on re-releasing the Blackground catalog, which also includes albums from Toni Braxton, JoJo, Timbaland & Magoo, and more.

While fans have been clamoring for Aaliyah's music to become more accessible, a Billboard feature pegged to news of the deal adds a layer of skepticism around it, and who it benefits.

In an interview with Blackground founder Barry Hankerson — who happens to be Aaliyah's uncle and the person in control of her masters — he breaks down how the holdup in posting Aaliyah's music to streaming services stems from disagreements between Hankerson and the singer's estate, run by Aaliyah LLC on behalf of her mother, Diane, and brother Rashad.

Blackground has mostly stayed silent over the last decade in an attempt to not draw any more negative attention after lawsuits were filed against it by Braxton, Timblaland, JoJo, and others over unreleased material and breaches of contract. Hankerson says that with Aaliyah's music in particular, he had mostly been waiting for a green light from her mother.

Toni Braxton; JoJo
Toni Braxton and JoJo both released albums through Blackground Records
| Credit: Mark Sagliocco/FilmMagic; Steve Jennings/WireImage

"There was a conversation we had that she didn't want the music out, and whatever my sister told me, I tried to do what she wanted me to do," Hankerson told Billboard. "As a parent, I would understand if she did not want the music out. Because who wants to hear the voice of your daughter who's gone? So when she said that to me, I said, 'OK, we're not putting it out. I don't know when, but one day we will.' We literally packed everything up and went on to something else."

Representatives for the estate claim that conversation never happened, but the piece of communication that did empower Hankerson to once again hunt for a partner to distribute Aaliyah and Blackground's work is a statement released on the late singer's Twitter account last year: "We are excited to announce that communication has commenced between the estate and various record labels about the status of Aaliyah's music catalogue, as well as its availability on streaming platforms in the near future. Thank you for your continued love and support. More updates to come!"

Hankerson eventually landed a deal with Empire, which put out early albums from Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak. But as vice president of A&R Tina Davis said, the company is aware of fans searching for any red flags that may come with the deal: "I think that one of the main things was trying to make sure that we represent them properly, thinking of how long it has been… how we make sure that the fans are OK with how we do approach it and how we do market it, considering them in every aspect. That was the only way for us to put it together."

Probably the biggest question to come out of the news is if and how these artists, who have seen some of their most beloved work shelved for over a decade, will receive any compensation from the re-releases. In a statement to EW, a representative for Blackground Records said, "Blackground 2.0 is committed to full transparency. Each artist will receive everything they are entitled to per their agreement."

As part of her response to the news, JoJo, who re-recorded the two albums she made with Blackground Records and released them in 2018, told fans on Twitter that "a stream of the re-recorded 2018 version supports me and helps me continue to do what I love. streaming the original unfortunately does not."

EW has reached out to representatives for JoJo, Timbaland, Braxton, Tank, and Ashley Parker Angel about whether the artists have been contacted about how they may be compensated through the re-release.

The Billboard story says that although Aaliyah's estate will likely avoid doing anything to prevent the re-releases, which will start to roll out Aug. 20, they still have significant hesitations about it. "Aaliyah's estate has always been ready to share Aaliyah's musical legacy but has been met with contention and a gross lack of transparency," Aaliyah LLC attorney Paul LiCalsi said in a statement. "For almost 20 years, Blackground has failed to account to the estate with any regularity in accordance with her recording contracts. In addition, the estate was not made aware of the impending release of the catalog until after the deal was complete and plans were in place. The estate has demanded that Blackground provide a full account of its past earnings, and full disclosure of the terms of its new deal to distribute Aaliyah's long embargoed music."

Continuing the back-and-forth, a representative for Blackground said it is the estate that's elected to not be involved with rollout plans, which include a streaming app called Music360 which will have exclusive Blackground remixes, and the possibility of a posthumous Aaliyah album.

In advance of the news, the estate released a statement that said, "Ultimately, we desire closure and a modicum of peace so we can facilitate the growth of the Aaliyah Memorial Fund and other creative projects that embody Aaliyah's true essence, which is to inspire strength and positivity for people of all creeds, races and cultures around the world."

See the Blackground Records 2021 release timeline below.

  • Aug. 20: Aaliyah — One in A Million album
  • Aug. 27: Timbaland & Magoo — Welcome to Our World, Indecent Proposal, and Under Construction, Part II albums + Timbaland — Tim's Bio album
  • Sept. 3: Romeo Must Die and Exit Wounds movie soundtracks 
  • Sept. 10: Aaliyah — ΛΛLIYΛH album
  • Sept. 17: Tank — Force of Nature, One Man, and Sex, Love & Pain albums
  • Sept. 24: JoJo — JoJo and The High Road albums / Ashley Parker Angel — Soundtrack to Your Life album
  • Oct. 1: Toni Braxton — Libra album
  • Oct. 8: Aaliyah — I Care 4 U and Ultimate Aaliyah compilation albums

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